Monday, March 30, 2009

Eater's Remorse: Soul as a Necessary Ingredient @ Maple St. Cafe

There's a huge difference between food with "soul" and food without. The ability to detect this essential ingredient (or lack thereof) is something, I think, you acquire without fully realizing it. The skill creeps up on you; you grow so accustomed, in New Orleans, to eating food with great big heaps of soul in it, that when you finally eat something that doesn't have that depth and heart, it's actually kind of shocking.

This revelation struck me when I dined at the Maple Street Cafe for the very first time last week. Constantly advertising in the local Clipper magazine for buy-one-get-one-half-off entrees, Boy and I thought it'd be fun to do a cheap meal within walking distance. After all, sometimes it's your own neighborhood that you explore last. A cute little cottage house with the added draw on a warm March evening of alfresco dining, the menu seemed promising. The menu selection was very reasonably priced ($12 and up), and the high-ceilinged bi-level dining room was mom-and-pop cafe cozy. We settled in.

Boy and I were feeling both poor and fat that day, due to the fact that we hadn't gone grocery shopping for a record three weeks, and opted to just get entrees and not load up on appetizers like we usually do. The decision was a pretty tough one since all the options sounded pretty good. The selections were mostly Italian, but I wasn't feeling all that noodly, so after much consideration, I chose the duck. It's my favorite meat, and for under $20 for a seared duck breast, it seemed like a good idea. Boy thought this was a valid point and got the veal something.

We were starving and consequently very happy to see the bread arrive at the table. Crispy, toasted, thick slices of French bread steamed up from the cloth napkins, but it was with great sadness that I noted there were only two pieces. At a table of two, two isn't really enough, in my opinion. Two pieces of bread always look kind of sad and lonely in a basket, and it just seems kind of awkward. Also, two pieces of bread tend to go rather quickly when there's any kind of wait. But alas, two there was; and in a minute's time, two there ceased to be.

The bread was of a nice, dense quality, and the ball of butter in the little dish was pleasant, with herbs and what seemed to be chili flakes mixed into the light yellow. The toasting had the bread warmed all the way through and caused the cool butter to melt on contact. This was nice, since it allowed me to use an even more sickening amount of butter than usual.

After a few long moments of wishing for more bread, our server came out with our meals. Hefty plates just full of color, I was excited. I had ordered the seared pepper-crusted duck breast in a blueberry cognac sauce, a combination I thought fresh, spring-timey, and inventive. It came with several vegetable types, which made me feel really good and less fat about what I'd been eating all week. The veggies added a lush splash of color: royal purple cabbage, sprightly green broccoli, vibrant orange carrots, and ivory mashed potatoes. The sauce was a rich blue-violet over the charcoal-hued layer of pepper over the duck breast, and plump whole blueberries cascaded down the meat into a pool of the sauce, oil-tinged with duck juices. Basically, mom-and-pop cafe, with mom providing a full day's serving of greens ... but a little fancier.

Always saving the best for last, I dove into the vegetables first. The cabbage was great, cooked perfectly and with a lovely acidic tang, albeit a little greasy. The broccoli was less exciting than I thought it would be, just steamed. However, I love broccoli in any form, so I didn't mind that too much. The carrots were also perfectly tender, sweet and buttery, sliced thick. So out of all of that vitamin A and B, the cabbage was far better than the other two options, since it had much more flavor and character.

I then figured, whatever; they're just vegetables, and sliced into one of the precut pieces of my duck ... and was immediately disappointed. The server hadn't asked for my temperature preference on the duck, so I assumed that I'd be served at least a medium breast. I was not. The center was a very, very light pink, and the rest? Brown. My duck breast was medium well.

Now here's the thing -- I like a good well-done duck as much as the next person. Roast duck soup, duck confit, and et cetera are all in my good graces. But when I order a full duck breast, tough skin intact and accompanied by sauce, I expect it ... well, NOT to be cooked all the way through. Duck breast, when served on its own and in one solid piece, is not all that tender, so a bite of well-done duck with thick, resistant skin is just a whole lot of work. By the time you're halfway done chewing, the flavor of the surrounding components have faded, leaving you the labor of still more chomping without the gratification of really tasting anything anymore.

The crusted black pepper over the duck was nice, adding a great pop of spice to every few bites, but because it was just a crust, the flavor didn't penetrate. In fact, no flavor penetrated into the core of the breast. I say all the time that I'm a purist when it comes to meat flavors, preferring meats to shine through sauces with their own distinctive tastes, but this was just kind of bland. The center was so overcooked that it could have been boiled, for all I knew. It was, to say the least, uninteresting.

On the other hand, the blueberry cognac sauce was good of its own merit, and probably the most interesting thing on the plate. Sweet, light, and generously portioned, the fresh taste of berries, violet staining the tan meat, provided a blast of color and brought down the heaviness of the lack of depth in the duck and brought down the pleasant heat of the pepper. The pop of the blueberries as my teeth crunched through the soft skin yielded a pleasant burst of sugary juices, adding a moisture to my mouth that the meat itself did not offer. A sauce like this would have been enjoyable on a less gamey meat like some tender white pork, where flavors wouldn't be competing with none the winner.

Harsh? Well, yes, and I'm really glad I don't know the chef or owner since I know I'm coming down hard on the Maple Street Cafe. Did I really expect a spectacular meal for two at a bargain-basement bill of $30 (courtesy of Clipper)? Well ... also, yes.

You see, I'm utterly spoiled. I've had fantastic food for less than $10 a head; I've had some incredible things at street fairs in New Orleans for as low as $3 a plate. Living in this city for five years does things to your standards, and you come to expect a certain amount of resonating flavor and passion in your food, a soul that brings it to life and makes your dish memorable. This duck had none of those things. There was no fire, no complexity, no special-ness about it. It was simple, but not in a sophisticated way. The Cafe gets an A for effort in trying to get inventive with the combination of flavors, but there was just something very flat in the execution, like an idea half-formed but not carried through. Like a thought or a post that ends with no summation and in ellipses ...

Maple Street Cafe
7623 Maple St
New Orleans, LA 70118
(504) 314-9003

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Trickery and Tomfoolery: Restaurant Style French Onion Soup

I'm one of those crazy soup people that love soup so much that I'd willingly go out of my way to seek it on a 90-degree day. Pho in the mo'ning, broth for brunch, stew for supper -- it's all good. Unfortunately, going out for soup a whole lot can get pretty costly, and soup in a can just isn't as satisfying as soup in a bowl (or better yet, a tureen) in your favorite restaurant.

One soup that I'm particularly a sucker for is French onion soup. (Paula Deen's shown left.) Sweet carmelized then deglazed white onions (Vidalia is even better, but much lighter in flavor and not as acidic) with a hint of butter sit at the bottom of the crock it's typically served in; small green parsley flakes and black pepper break up gorgeous fat bubbles floating flatly on the surface of savory brown beef broth -- or, if you're in for a special treat, half beef broth and half chicken for a sweeter flavor. But generally, you don't see what's going on beneath the surface until you break through the crusty and delicious shell that protects your soup like a souffle soldier, in shape if not anything else. This covering is traditionally a half-inch thick slice of hard toasted (or stale) French bread, which will expand to twice its original size as it absorbs the soup, which is then topped with either Swiss, mozzarella, Gruyere, or Provolone cheese melted over the whole crock to seal the flavors in. The tart, salt, and sweet sensations are fabulous, and add a generous dollop of sherry to boil off and the acidic bite gives it that extra edge.

Now here are the problems with making French onion soup from scratch (for this photo and the recipe at Cookography, just click) at home: it's extensively time-consuming; skimming home-made broth is kind of gross; it costs much more to actually make it than to buy it in a can; there are a lot of time-sensitive ingredients involved that could potentially spoil before you had time to eat the whole thing; every time you go to make it, it requires going through a whole big production; it makes everything in your house, including the pot you use, reek of beef broth and onions for a good long while.

And now here are the issues I have with French onion soup in a can: the flavor is kind of flat; canned soups tend to be oversalted; you can't really trust ingredients you can't pronounce and that sound chemically created; it's in a can; and French onion soup is really kind of pointless an distinctly un-special without the textural bells and whistles of broiled bread and melted cheese.

Well, I've come up with a happy medium of how to combine the convenience of French onion soup in a can and the taste of fresh French onion soup, and here's what you need:
  • approximately 13 minutes to devote to this project
  • small, 1-quart saucepan
  • toaster oven
  • oven-proof ceramic bowl or crock
  • a can of Campbell's condensed French onion soup (brand specific)
  • cooking sherry, any type
  • Marie Callender's Garlic and Butter croutons (brand specific)
  • 2-3 slices of Swiss, mozzarella, or Provolone cheese (I like the Sargento's 2% Swiss or Baby Swiss for a milder flavor. Their packaging also helps the cheese keep longer.)
  • a pinch of garlic powder, parsley, and white pepper
Okay, now here's what you do:
  1. Pour the can of soup in the saucepan.
  2. Instead of filling the empty can all the way to the top with water as the label directs you, fill it up only to the end of the ridged lines on the inside of the can. There should be around three-quarters of an inch of space left in the can. Fill it to the metal lip with sherry. Pour this into the saucepan as well.
  3. Add garlic powder and white pepper to taste.
  4. Heat on high and let it boil. Lower the heat, stir, and let bubble for about a minute more. You'll know the alcohol from the sherry is mostly boiled off when the whiff in the steam is just a whiff and not a blast.
  5. Pour the contents of the saucepan into your bowl or crock.
  6. Turn the toaster oven on "Broil" and set for 10 minutes. Let it heat up.
  7. Scatter a generous handful of the croutons across the surface of the soup. Do not overdo this step! There should be one layer of croutons; no more. If you use too much, too much of the soup will be absorbed and you'll be left with a bunch of mushy bread and onions. Too little, and the cheese will sink.
  8. Arrange the cheese slices over the croutons, avoiding too much overlap. Best case scenario has each slice of cheese with at least one corner touching the edge of the bow.
  9. 2-3 minutes should have passed, meaning the toaster oven should have 7-8 minutes left on the timer. Put the bowl in the toaster oven and let it broil for the remainder of the time. It's perfect when the cheese has dried a little and very small bubbles have risen from the surface. For Swiss, it'll taste burnt if toasted brown, so be careful not to overbroil.
  10. Pull from toaster oven and let cool for a minute or two. Once the crouton and cheese surface is broken on the soup, go under this shell and stir. The butter and garlic flavors of the croutons will sink to the bottom, giving the soup that fresh, herb-y flavor and a lip-smacking savory taste that you won't find in microwaving a can of condensed soup.
  11. Smack lips rudely and enjoy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gratuitous Sexiness: Such a Boar

Besh Steak's seasonal wild boar, tender and sliced into thick medallions atop a bed of creamy, rich grits and served atop a cast-iron skillet, is certainly not for the boorish. It's refined and less gamey than you would expect, but a far cry from our domesticated pig, with a little bit more lean tough muscle to the flesh than pork. The sauce, if I recall correctly, was a something vaguely honeyed, and the baby carrots and thin-cut baby zucchini were tender and steamed well. I don't remember what the foam was made of, but the whole thing came together quite nicely.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: A Rose By a Wholly Other Name

Knowing that Nine Roses is a Vietnamese restaurant, I tend to play it safe when I go there, getting what they do best -- Vietnamese. But the other day, I thought to myself, let's see what their chefs have really got. The Chinese lunch menu they offer on one of their nineteen thousand pages of options sounded like a great deal, so why not? For under $7, you get a choice of brown, white, or shrimp fried rice; wonton, egg drop, or hot and sour soup; and a page of options brimming with possibilities.

After much debate, questioning, and considerable patience from our server, I finally decided on the Moo Shu Chicken, with shrimp fried rice and wonton soup.

It was only a few minutes before a small bowl of hot, steaming soup hit the table. Two traditional Hong Kong-style wontons, in a thin wrapper and simply balled up and held together by the ground shrimp and pork filling, floated at the top of the bowl; generously wide-cut strips of roast pork had sunk to the bottom, lightly dyeing the golden broth as the red marinade faded into pink into the soup. Fresh cilantro rested at the surface, wilting in the steam and heat, releasing the distinctive fragrance of the herb. The broth was the addicting pho we all know and love, and the use of thin wonton wraps made for a silky sensation as your teeth struggles to get a good hold on the slippery tidbits. There was more of a mild, sweet shrimp flavor to the meat than of pork. To accompany the soup was a bowl of fried, crunchy noodles, which was excellent dipped into the thin, chili-infused duck sauce-like orange sauce that sat on the table's second condiment carousel.

I started to get pretty filled up, having eaten almost the whole bowl of crunchy noodles and rich soup, but found plenty of room to dive into the big plate that was then presented to me. The shrimp in the fried rice weren't exactly high quality; the taste, shape, and fact that they were veined thickly through betrayed that they were inexpensive filler shrimp. On the other hand, the flavor of the rice was wonderful, a nice hibachi-style fried rice with scrambled eggs, peas, carrots, and onions. Slightly smoky and with a tinge of oyster sauce flavoring, this was a great side dish that almost made up for the fact that there were no traditional moo shu pancakes to wrap my entree in.

The moo shu itself was very good, shredded cabbage taking place of the traditional "golden needles," or lily flowers, a practice that has been going on for quite some time in Westernized Chinese food. (Thanks for sharing, Gabe!) Wide strips of scallions added zest and bamboo shoots added a different type of crunchiness to the dish. The sauce was a thin coat, just enough to permeate every component of the moo shu without causing it to drip all over the plate. Other vaguely unidentifiable vegetables were stir-fried with the main ingredient, the cabbage, all combining in a satisfying yin of cooling freshness.

Two end-of-meal options were provided, one being an interestingly cut fried noodle glazed over with some kind of thin, sweet drizzle; the other was a perfectly ripe slice of navel orange -- a common and authentic dessert and palate-cleanser in Chinese and Japanese culture.

The verdict? Ordering off the Chinese lunch menu at Nine Roses/Hoa Hong gives you a great bang for your buck. You can't, of course, expect it to be ultra-authentic and true to real Chinese food, but you can expect it to be pretty good. I can't make a fully valid judgment until I taste some other dishes from the lunch specials (namely something with brown sauce like chicken with broccoli or General Tso's chicken; or a noodle dish like lo mein or chow fun), but this was a positive experience as I attempted get my feet wet on this Vietnamese restaurant's Chinese offerings. Who knows? I may get in knee-deep next time. I'll make sure to tell you all about it.

Hoa Hong Nine Roses
1100 Stephens Street
Gretna, Louisiana (West Bank)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Taste of the Town

A very excitable person, it's not hard to get me stoked, especially about food. But every so often, a festival (especially in spring -- New Orleans goes food-fest crazy during this brief respite between cold and humidity) comes along that gets me giddy, and tomorrow night is one of them.

What's that now?, you say? TASTE OF THE TOWN!

Every year, Tommy Cvitanovich, the mastermind behind the Drago's famous and oft-imitated (and as my daily dose of cliched phrases, "never duplicated") charbroiled oysters, puts together a festival not to be missed, with the participation of other high-profile members of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. For $90, you can get a Maitre d'Patron ticket, which allows you access to some of the hottest restaurants in town and facetime with some of the most renowned chefs New Orleans has to offer. Held in Lafreniere Park in Metairie, just outside of the city, this event is considered one of the highlights of eatin' season.

Here's a sneak peak of some of the restaurants I'm most worked up about:
  • Drago's
  • Court of Two Sisters
  • 5 Fifty 5 at the Marriott
  • Arnaud's Restaurant
  • Besh Steak
  • Commander's Palace
  • Bourbon House
  • La Petite Grocery
  • Pascal's Manale
  • Ruth's Chris
  • Ralph's on the Park
  • Sucre
I would skip Crescent City Brewhouse, though, since they're not that good, and take advantage of the fine dining selections. A year ago, I would have added Galatoire's to that list, but that restaurant's on a different list of mine, and that list starts with "Shit" due to the the lack of respect the management treats its own employees and affiliates and the nasty attitude management gives their customers. But that's all fodder for a different story that I'll go into at a later time, because right now, I want to talk about things that are happy. So hooray for Taste of the Town!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Mmmacaroons @ Sucre

Normally I'm a stickler for proper spelling, being one of the "sticklers" Lynn Truss urges to "unite" in her book, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," but I can't help but add that little moan of appreciation when it comes to Chef Tariq Hanna's fragile cookie treats. I guarantee that if you try it for yourself, you'll understand the difference between a macaroon and Sucre's mmmacaroons, a distinction I learned for myself when I went to sample sweet treats at the uber-cute store to decide on my wedding favors.

Courtney Dodson, the spunky and, as of the night before, literally red-headed general manager of Sucre, was ready with a silver tray of chocolates for me, all of which elicited various squeals of delight and oohs of appreciation, but the perfect last bite was in the gorgeous, puffy almond macaroon the tasting concluded with.

What we had was a Parisian macaron in the traditional sense, with thin but puffy cookies and a center layer of creamy filling, a different animal entirely from the common solid macaroon. But for both, almond paste is the main flavor. (However, for the sake of continuity, since Sucre and Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine call their macarons macaroons, we'll continue to go by that term.) Made with plenty of sugar and egg whites, these French cookies are known for being extremely delicate and are notoriously difficult to make just right ... all factors that made the towering displays of them lining the sparkling counters like so many Easter trees in pastel hues that much more impressive.

Soft, chewy, and crunchy simultaneously, every bite was a study in careful construction and flawless balance. Light to the touch, the macaroons had to be handled with care. Breaking through the cookie with the first bite caused a minor collapse in the structure, the flaky meringue-like shell breaking off in tiny chips. The inside was soft and moist, the filling a cool almond mousseleine that was creamy but light ... the way a custard is. Sweet but nutty, the flavor awakens cravings you never knew you had, with a lingering taste that leaves you fiending for more with the memory of the pure pleasure you just experienced. One was just not enough.

So after I dropped a few bills on the little signature Sucre purses that would be my wedding favors (we went with the sparkling gold-frosted fleur de lis-shaped Meunieres--luscious dark chocolate with a white chocolate ganache and brown butter and almond center--and my favorite, the incredible and gorgeous three-tier, shimmering ivory Wedding Cake--a decadent, slightly smoky toasted almond white chocolate ganache hidden under a coat of more white chocolate), I decided that I liked Boy that day and figured that it was time to drop a few significantly smaller bills on more macaroons. They were pretty pricey for a po' writer at $12 for a box of just eight, so making the right choice was crucial. The decision was hard; with eight different flavors to choose from, the small sampler box seemed like a good idea, but Boy had ideas of his own. We went with four of the almonds, two pecans, and two lemons, leaving the semi-sweet chocolate, Sicilian pistachio, strawberry, hazelnut, and orange to sit lonely in the case.

Of the eight, six made it past the car ride home, and the ranks in the pretty pastel box quickly dwindled to just four within fifteen minutes of getting home. And then they were completely decimated half an hour after that. Now there are none, making this actually a very, very sad story. *Tear.*

Sucre: A Sweet Boutique
3025 Magazine Street

Sucre - Macaroon from Sucre - Founder - Joel Dondis on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Impressed by Chef Ganesh (@ Sara's, But That Doesn't Rhyme)

Due to the strong urgings of my wedding florist who is fast becoming a friend, I was encouraged to check out a neighborhood spot in the Riverbend area of Uptown--a charming subsection of the Carrollton area just a turn of the Mississippi (a river known for snaking curves and meandering paths) away from my own humble abode in what was historically known as Black Pearl. I rode my powder blue cruiser with the sweet cream fenders up the road to harass the ultra-talented Ashley Bateman of NOLA Flora about my centerpieces last week, and as we tend to do, we got to talking. I told her about The Vicarious Food Whore and as another avid foodie and good New Orleanian, was full of suggestions about the treasures hidden in our own neck of the woods.

Anyone who has lived here knows that this type of discussion could go on for days and days, from the first cup of cafe au lait to glass of sweet tea to the last mint julep of the night. With a wealth of restaurants nestled into residential blocks, these local "secrets" are some of New Orleans' best. Mat and Naddies, Dante's Kitchen, Brigtsen's, One Restaurant ... and this is just in my tiny nook, within 5 square blocks. But one very, very different type of restaurant had taken Ashley's fancy, and although it's located directly next to hers, wafting aromas to intermingle with her fresh flowers, I found out that convenience was not the only reason she was a fan of Sara's.

Being on good terms with her chef neighbor, she arranged for Boy and I to go to dinner on her referral, and eager to try something new, I of course accepted. In fact, I was so interested that I actually turned down patron tickets to City Park's Lark in the Park event, especially since I had already promised Chef Ganesh Ayyengar that I'd be there and I'd just gotten the invite the day of the event. It's just not me to be a flake.

A tiny little cottage with a tiny little sign hid the magnitude of the elegant dining room of Sara's Restaurant & Bar. Plush, comfortable cigar-room chairs in gem-toned teal surrounded dark wood tables, and the heavy, masculine antique-style furniture along the wall reminded me of the understated elegance of my sorority house. We'd gotten there early in the evening and had the dining room to ourselves to explore as we would, but I waited until later to poke my nose into the private renovated patio-type private room (shown left) in the back and the low table with pillow seating area between the two main spaces.

I always just drink lemon water with my meals, and only if I have to drink anything at all, since I'd rather fill my stomach with food rather than beverage and I like to taste the food by itself without the influence of any drink. So it took me a little bit to notice that there were little pieces of lemon in my ice-cold water already, the juice diluted and serving just to give the water a subtle crispness. This, I thought, was a very nice touch.

Boy and I debated over the menu for quite some time over what I'd get. There were a lot of strange, unfamiliar, and exciting choices and it was difficult to choose. Knowing that the chef's specialty was Indian made us of course veer towards Indian, but this is one of the ethnicities of food that I have no experience with. At all. I don't even know what it is that I've eaten in the past. So even though I was into trying new stuff, I had a twinge of apprehension due to the uncharted waters I was now navigating.

After grilling our patient server, I went with the eggplant dish (which doesn't appear on the menu you can take home, unfortunately) and Boy, who had no such qualms about Indian food nor about basic decision-making, immediately requested their specialty, the Lamb Oxford (photo right). I wasn't starving due to the massive po-boy I'd devoured at Parkway Tavern earlier that day (this was really an excellent Friday, come to think of it), but I couldn't resist also throwing in the Oyster Torte as an appetizer.

For some reason, I was expecting baked oysters in a shell. The description said "Louisiana oysters baked with herbs, Gouda, and Gruyere with Creole mustard cream sauce," and since I've had Drago's and their charbroiled bites of heaven on my mind since I first tried them, my consciousness totally glossed over the word "torte." What came out of the kitchen was a charming mini-pie shaped quiche-like tart with a generous coat of Creole mustard sauce on half of the plate. The spices were done well and each bite had a life of its own, the Creole mustard adding just the right amount of acid to lighten up the denseness of the snack. The oyster flavor was nicely dispersed, but being such a tender and delicate mollusk, some of the smaller pieces toughened up in the baking. However, this didn't detract too much from the dish.

My main course, the eggplant thingamabob, was in short, incredible. Given my past experience with Indian food at the Magazine Street lunch buffet at Nirvana, I wasn't prepared to be too impressed. But boy, was I wrong.

Skin-on perfectly bite-sized pieces of tender young eggplant filled the majority of the sizeable plate. With spices separating from the thick brown sauce, I prepared myself for some fairly intense heat, since in my experience, an oily red sheen means hot chili oil ... that's the Szechuan/Sichuan way, a style I'm familiar with because of my father's dabbling in it. A tentative sniff awakened my appetite instanteanously; the scent was rich and tantalizing. With a triangle of soft, fluffy, and steaming hot naan in one hand and at the ready, I took my first nervous bite.

A sweet, sweet heat filled my mouth and visions of tamarinds obscured my vision. This was love ... and not a pure love. It was a smoldering love that burned after half a dozen heaping forkfuls, that carried with it richness, pain, and pleasure. The vegetables were unrecognizable in the luxurious, thick brown sauce, cloaked in its darkness and mysterious flavors, all smoky sugars and tangy tastes. They were soft but not in an unpalatable way; rather, the vegetables all melded together in a well-orchestrated harmony of soft crunching of seeds, slow separation of skins, and burst of succulent juices from the flesh of the eggplant.

The golden lentils, spilled on the plate like a golden blanket with the dark green embroidery of what seemed to be spinach, was a mild and starchy flavor that offset the complex and exotic spices of the eggplant. The closest comparison in terms of texture that I can come up with is coarsely crushed golden soybeans or cooked dehyrated peas. To set it all off, a ball of white, fluffy Basmati rice with just a pinch of cumin came with it as well, topped off with a thin tortilla-like chip made of lentils for a delightfully nutty taste.

Chef Ganesh sent out a dessert, turning a blind eye to the food babies that were visibly apparent in my belly and Boy's. A white chocolate mango cheesecake, the cool feeling was a welcome relief to the somewhat banked fire that yet smoldered at the back of my throat (a complaint that was laughed off as politely as possible by Boy and the chef himself, while Boy proceeded to literally wipe my plate clean with the remaining naan). The white chocolate was light and refreshing, and the fresh mango flavor a tropical palate-cleanser. A graham cracker crust made it feel much more familiar, as did the ripe strawberry.

Like I said--what a great Friday. And for under $16! This certainly is the good life.

Sara's Restaurant & Lounge
724 Dublin Street

Monday, March 23, 2009

So Sorry About Squishy Salmon

I am human; therefore, I err. I err; therefore, I am sometimes kind of stupid. The other night, at Sushi Brothers, I exhibited an appalling lack of judgment and forethought and was very promptly very sorry.

After the deliciousness of the tuna tartar at Le Meritage at their grand opening party, I was under the false impression that I was ready to dive into sushi, that I was finally grown up enough to overcome my cultural prejudice against cold and/or raw food as a meal, so feeling rather brave, I ordered the Philadelphia Roll. Smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado -- all things that are not scary. Smoked salmon, though raw in appearance, is actually cooked. The cream cheese and avocado were things that I was used to being cold, so I figured that wouldn't freak me out.

This assumption was incorrect. In thinking about the flavor, I completely forgot about the fact that I do not like foods that squish, squelch, mush, spread, and squish again ... especially in that order. Which is exactly what the Philadelphia Roll did.

The flavor was fine, but the texture bothered me to the point that I had to discreetly and embarrassingly dispose of my second bite, being unable to stomach it. The salmon had a ham-like taste, as promised, but was in such a huge chunk that it looked too overwhelming and solid, which made it even worse when it dissolved into goo at first bite. The cream cheese was pretty solid, too, but in eating it, it spread across the roof of my mouth and promptly decided to stay there until I figured I really had to work hard at it to get it back onto my tongue. The avocado also has a spreadable texture, which further enhanced the squish factor.

Does this mean I'm back to square one with sushi, limited to crunchy rolls or opting for Bento boxes? Not necessarily. The asparagus tempura roll Boy got was rather delicious, hot in the middle, and eel sauce permeating through the rice. And at just $4, I could justify getting it at Sushi Brothers, especially since Mikimoto charged us an unreasonable $7 for the same thing but smaller last time we went. Snow crab rolls are pretty consistently good, too, and crab (to me), is a "safe" choice.

I did learn one very important lesson out of this unfortunate evening, though, and from now on, I will try much, much harder to think about all the characteristics of food that I do not like rather than just the way it'll taste.


Disclaimer: this is in no way attacking sushi or sushi-lovers; this post is merely an account of a highly regrettable decision I made in forgetting my own preferences. Some people love squelchy food -- I'm just not one of them. And it take all kinds to make this world, no?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Les Entrees--La Petite Grocery, Part Trois

Sorry about the very long intermission between the first and second acts of the James Beard dinner recreation at La Petite Grocery with Sucre. I have a great excuse though--I was waylaid by bandits and vagabonds! Yes! They came in the form of lethargy and gray skies and robbed me of my inspiration, basically leaving my brain a soggy, wet mess. But I've returned from the depths of those treacherous and bleak lands, and aim to regale you of tales of delights yet unknown and Adventures yet untold.

Well, now that I've regained your attention to the meal at hand (as well as utterly disgusted you with my melodramatics), let's sit down. I was at table 52, well situated under a window at the far right of La Petite Grocery, and I was ready to dive in. Which is no surprise, really; I'm always at the ready, with fork in hand.

The menu told me that the first course I'd be experiencing was a crawfish dish, which I have to admit, I wasn't particularly excited about. But the first hour had proven that Chef Devillier and Chef Hanna know their seafood, so I didn't have as much apprehension towards the dish as I would have if I hadn't already sampled their collective skill. A shimmering Sauvignon Blanc was poured for me, delicious with a strong hint of peaches, and a gorgeous little plate with a single, perfectly-formed crescent, was placed in front of me. A plump, beige-hued housemade Mezzaluna sat by itself, covered in a creamy sauce that shone with richness in the candlelight. It was an artistic study in desert shades with the beauty of a clear but sparkling mirage, pink tasso and green garnish offsetting the sauce the color of the yellow underside of a dusky rose.

Cutting into it was even more gratifying than just staring at it, crawfish piled thickly inside the fresh al dente dough. Like the blue crab beignets, steam wafted up immediately, releasing the heavenly scent of trapped leek and seafood aromas escaping to mingle with the buttery smoked tomato sauce. The use of Breaux Bridge crawfish was a good choice; the meat of the fat tails were tender, sweet, and the chefs had obviously taken the care to clean them well. There was no hint of muddiness common at crawfish boils and stringy, off-season mudbugs. Rather, the flesh was light, flavorful, mild, and more reminiscent of lobster than the usual dirty taste I've grown to associate with crawfish. This was, hands down, the absolute best crawfish/crawfish dish I'd ever had. And that's now officially on the record. The smoked and tasso added the kick of salt and a crunchy-but-chewy texture, finishing off what was, all in all, a flawlessly executed dish.

The light orange Roasted Cauliflower Soup was next, and I thought for sure that this was going to be superb. I like roasted things and I like cauliflower. Who doesn't like bacon? Or in-season oysters? And creme fraiche is generally like a dollop of happiness. However, this time around, the creme fraiche was my undoing, adding more richness to the already creamy and decadent soup, bringing it to a heaviness that is best in small portions rather than the generous bowl presented. The oysters were tender and succulent, and the house-smoked bacon was thick, again crunchy-but-chewy, well-salted, but a tiny bit gamey due to its woodsy flavor. The roasted cauliflower was a distinctly unusual flavor, an adventurous flavor that I had never encountered, soft with a smoky edge, if that makes any sense. The pureed cauliflower usually can stand alone in terms of creating a very creamy, thick soup, and the addition of the creme fraiche, like I said, gave the soup even more weight.

The third dish to be brought out was my undisputed favorite of the evening. Fellow food writer and newest addition to my blogroll Blake Killian, who "makes" all kinds of things, basically went into raptures about the Seared Duck Breast, so I took my time taking pictures of the elegantly plated dish, to prolong my anticipation. Tantric eating, man. That's what it's all about.

Two perfectly cooked oblong slices of medium/medium-rare duck sat on my plate, ringed like a tree trunk with varying strata of color. Charcoal on the outside, a round of pearl white, chocolate-brown graduating into a carnation pink, deepening into that rosy deep pink with violet undertones that we foodies love so much. Luscious and tender, the subtle seasoning of the duck allowed the essence of its flavor to permeate through the fabulous black pepper caramel sauce that streaked the plate in bold, artistic signature. I couldn't get enough of this sauce, the sweet playing with the spiciness of the pepper, the salted nuttiness perfectly complementing the savory tones of the duck. The little salad of pea shoots, looking like large, curly microgreens, graced half of the plate, added a more vibrant color to the dish, and as Remy Robert commented, the slightly salted flavor of this fresh vegetable added simple sophistication. I thought it was a nice country farm-to-table movement touch, but ended up agreeing with Remy as I continued to eat.

I found out later, to my pleasant surprise, that this dish was the creation of Chef Tariq, whose confections have taken precedence and have outshadowed the rest of his repertoire. Apparently, his range is wider than one would even think, and more polished than the frosting on his shiny, sparkly sweet treats at kitschy Sucre.

Moving on--a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon by Graham Beck from the Gameskeepers Reserve was poured out to accompany the final meat course, which was a Painted Hills Beef Sirloin with wild trumpet black mushrooms. The mushrooms had a wonderful, full, nutty kind of earthiness to them, like a mellow shittake, and the wilted flower-like fungi were mostly long, hollow caps. Light as a feather, droopy as a morning glory at sunset, these were delicate specimens, in taste as well as feel, regardless of the plush strength of earthbound flavor. The sirloin was hearty as well, a perfect red center glowing brightly from the center of each generous slice, the rich promise of iron in the thin rivulets of crimson that stained the edges of the otherwise yellow Potato-Parsnip Gratin light pink. I looked forward to taking a bite of this, knowing that even though it was just a sirloin, this Oregon beef was going to be complexly flavored and tender due to its hormone- and antibiotic-free natural vegetarian source.

Although it was still very good, the sirloin is not my favorite cut, lacking a certain robustness and complex flavor that characterizes other cuts. The mushrooms and the light drizzles of glaze were very good, and I found myself in want of more sauce to add a bit more flavor and complexity to the center pieces of each slice. Or perhaps I was just still so in love with the duck from the last course, bursting with raunchy deliciousness, that my senses were just dulled to the appeal of the contrasting mildness of the more delicate than usual beef.

What did have a particularly strong, resonating flavor was the Potato-Parsnip Gratin, which was topped with pecan streusel and a pinch of fresh stems of what I believe to have been thyme. Thick-shaved (or thin-sliced, depending on how you see it) peeled baby potatoes created a contrast in texture with the mashed core. Like everything else, there was a beautiful shine to it. I consider the Gratin kind of a daring play on yams with pecans and streusels, in terms of sugar, nut, and pastry, and the whipped parsnip added a whole level of sweet creaminess to the mixture that was like nothing I'd ever encountered. A novel flavor with uncommon elements, this was another special occasion dish, like the roasted cauliflower soup, that benefits from tasting portions.

The evening drew to a close with two desserts, the first being a Creole Cream Cheese Panna Cotta. The closest thing I can equate this to is the texture of a firm lightly scented yogurt, in unstirred form in a cup. It was firm and substantial--which made it satisfying to dig your spoon in--and had a yogurty tartness as well from the cream cheese. The citrus salad was a uniqe, like sweet pickled cabbage almost; thin strips of soft crunchiness, since it was an unexpected flavor given its descriptions. But this night was all about the inventive, and with the Steens-scented foam adding its cane sugar rawness sweetening up the Panna Cotta, this was a study in creativity.

There was a little Dunkin Donuts reminiscent light, more sweet than bitter chocolate Munchkin (or doughnut hole to those who didn't grow up eating "donuts"), which was fluffy and delicious--something very necessary for the harsher tones of the chicory syrup. Salted Caramel-Chocolate Custard Cake also offered up a great density, too, a soft sponginess like firm mousse making up the custard. It was enrobed with a stunning sheen of rich chocolate, and the salted pecan was an absolute delight, ending the wonderful dining experience on one perfectly balanced, harmonized note.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tariq Hanna ... The New Willy Wonka?

He's tall, mysterious, has a slight accent, and a head just full of brilliant ideas, so why not? Apparently, pastry chef extraordinaire (and, if you're ever lucky enough to get the opportunity to find out for yourself, chef-in-general extraordinaire) Tariq Hanna, the creative force behind luxury treat shop Sucre, is looking for his very own Charlie Bucket this Easter.

The way I found this out was actually really exciting. Every once in a while, some PR campaigns really just knock my socks off, and Jennifer Bond's agency's strategy was one of those moments of genius.

It all started with an email from Jen the other afternoon, asking innocently enough where I plan on being for the rest of the day. Slyly, she essentially said she was only curious because she had a rather delicate package that needed to be hand-delivered either today or tomorrow and couldn't be left outdoors or on a doorstep.

I was intrigued.

After much coordination, it was determined that Boy was guaranteed to be home during a certain window of time and that the mysterious package would be safely delivered directly to his hands, sometime in the afternoon before I returned from the office. Naturally, I rushed my ass home as soon as possible to find out what my present was. (Presents!)

In a cellophane bag with iridescent white string confetti at the bottom was a very large, very perfect, and VERY chocolate egg. But was that all?

I figured it might be and debated waiting to break it into pieces and eat it slowly, but Boy was convinced that there had to to something in it. After all, the bearer of the gift had emphasized with great intonation to Boy the very specific instructions of "She must open it immediately." Curiosity, having been killing this cat for several hours as he waited for me to get home won over, and he tore the little pink ribbon off and shook the egg.

"What are you doing?!"

"There's gotta but something in it. They said to open it right away, and that it was important, so we have to."

Well, how can you argue with that kind of logic? Monkey see, monkey do, and like a good monkey, I too shook it hard, and finally caved and asked for a knife and cutting board. After all, you never can tell what's in a secret egg, and secret eggs have been known to ooze their secrets all over your clean kitchen table.

I stabbed the top once with one of my J. Henckels and the beautiful, smooth milk chocolate split cleanly into two perfect halves, revealing a slip of metallic gold paper folded into quarters.

"What is it? What is it?!" the Boy demanded, more excited than I'd seen him in a while.

In bold letters across the goldenrod-hued shimmering paper read this:

"It's a party! They said you had to open it right away, so there's probably a party! Oh, man, I wish I didn't have a final to take. There's something going on, so you better hurry. Go find out!"

Although I absolutely hate surprises (I'm never prepared enough for surprise, and as a control freak, this doesn't work out too well), I'd never turn down a good mystery, so I flew off into the sunset (or something much less poetic) towards the address on the note. After overcoming the usual Magazine Street parking obstacles, with its questionable meters and even more questionable appropriate-parking markers, I walked up to the counter at Sucre. The store was obviously not having a party, since it was dinnertime when I got there (chocolate and gelato are acceptable meal substitutions only if you're a pothead or a high school kid with the metabolism of a greyhound) and therefore relatively empty, but I still knew something very big and very, very exciting was happening beneath the calm surface.

"I think I have something," I said, pulling out my note. "It says come find my golden ticket? Do I have a golden ticket?"

The girl at the counter was visibly confused, so I attempted to help. "Jennifer Bond sent it to me, but I don't know what it means." She apparently didn't know what it meant, either, but another girl there kind of did and showed me a placard, saying that if what I was holding was indeed a golden ticket, I'd just won an entire day at where the magic happens with Tariq in their sweets studio and a chef's coat with my name embroidered on it! This was indeed, as I said, very, very exciting. To make sure, she set out to investigate and made some phone calls.

Unfortunately, I only had one of the media eggs, which were distributed to members of the press around town to pique interest in a new promotion Sucre is launching, a promotion that's guaranteed to get people super-psyched and incite golden ticket frenzy. Essentially, every $17 chocolate egg holds at the very least a coupon for a free cup of gelato. So, sweet -- you get chocolate and ice cream. Stoner's fantasy. But that's not all! Some eggs have vouchers for a free Sucre t-shirt. Awesome! Clothes and food! Even better, other eggs have the gelato coupons but supplement that with a $25 Sucre gift card. Yayyy, candy! But five and only five have the golden ticket.

So this all begs the question Jen asked of me via crunchy, melty, delicious egg -- have you found your golden ticket?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Epicurian Adventures: Tantalizing Tidbits @ La Petite Grocery with Sucre

I know I do wrong in terms of best practice every time I post on The Vicarious Food Whore, but I can't help but to get incredibly long-winded over food in a city that never ceases to blow my mind. I know I'm supposed to write short snippets as a blogger, tell stories with images, and keyword my stuff, getting to the crux of the matter right away ... but I don't care. The majority of the time, the type of dining lifestyle I'm fortunate enough to be privy to deserves 500 words or more, and it's liberating to have ownership over your own medium to do that. One such event was Monday night's dinner at La Petite Grocery for Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orléans, whose Fête Française is scheduled for this Saturday. In a nod to the "I know what I'm doing" gods, I'm going to break this dinner up into two posts, witholding and pulling back like a tantric acts. I mean, this is the work of a food whore, right?

Chef Justin Devillier (of La Petite Grocery) and Chef Tariq Hanna played hosts that night, recreating for New Orleanians the meal they had teamed up to prepare at the famed James Beard House in New York City, an honor aptly bestowed on the two gifted chefs. It was my first time meeting Chef Devillier, who seemed a little shy and withdrawn, but sometimes with chefs, schmoozing is what you develop with age, and he was under 30. On the other hand, Tariq, that intimidating yet affable genius was clearly in his element, and I was more than happy to see him again ... especially with my wedding coming up and truffles nowhere to be found on my "done" list but prominently on my "to-do."

No matter; let's get to the good part. Like I've said time and time again, you're not here to read about people -- you're here to read about stuff, and I've got plenty of that for ya.

A sunny, intimate little restaurant whose interior ambience belies its busy Magazine Street location, the light colored wood and kitschy sign was very (to me) country French in style. A partition divided the host/ess stand and the bar area, which was drenched in the full afternoon sun from the big streetfront windows. High ceilings made the place seem airier (hence the country feel), and I was immediately greeted with a server wearing a smile and a trayful of snacks.

My first bite boded well. It was the Blue Crab Beignets with Charred Onion Tartar Sauce, which was absolutely delicious. Crispy but in more of a fluffy batter way than a Cafe du Monde beignet way, the center was piping hot and stuffed generously with large, sweet lumps of (more than likely local) crabmeat. There were only about 5-6 to a plate, which meant that every bite would be as steaming and fragrant as the last time the hordes descended on the helpless server. The outer shell of the beignets were slightly sweet in a benign kind of way (nonabrasive, not dull, just a great vehicle for the fabulous crab), but slightly oily and buttery (causing me to instantly regret wearing a satin dress), and hollow on the inside for a truly gratifying crunch for the clouds of steam that erupt when the surface is broken through. The charred onion in the tartar sauce added a sweetness to the tart, thick dipping sauce, and I just adored it, pretty much licking dollops of it off my fingers. But then again, that's not saying a whole whole lot, since I love mayonnaise and onions. However, I do believe these were the highlight of the hand-passed munchies and I could have eaten them all night ... had I been wearing a paper towel and not an overly expensive plum number. So used to wearing jeans and wifebeaters throughout college and all black while working at restaurants, I have a dreadful habit of using my own self as a walking napkin, forgetting that my wardrobe now looks like a Banana Republic catalog, no longer a yoga wear one.

More to the point, after dashing off to the ladies room to wash my hands before I exhibited my usual 'disheveled chic' core by fingerprinting my frock, I decided to be smart and partake in less finger-y finger foods. I made my way through the crowd to make prey of the server carrying little darling cups of something on a stick, figuring that things on sticks were neater and things that came on sticks were usually delicious pieces of meat.

This assumption remained true. What I had been ogling was actually some Bronzed Lobster Sausage, a squishy browned bite sitting atop a little pool of creamy, lightly acidic, soft yellow passionfruit butter (Remy, I will forever link to you whenever anyone has passionfruit butter, and that's a promise!). The texture of the lobster sausage was a little offputting at first, low in density but with an unexpected resistance to the tooth, resulting in a rather springy experience. This kind of reminded me of seafood foam in solid form, since the taste was so diluted from having been ground (probably since juices are lost as chemical bonds are broken down) and thus the flavor became more remiscent of the slightly briny oddness of seared scallops. The passionfruit butter (oop -- there it is again, R!) gave it a citrusy tang, which was certainly interesting, and the texture was kind of custardy rather than like whipped butter. However, a really pleasant surprise was at the very bottom of the passionfruit cream, but unfortunately, it was rather difficult to eat said pleasant surprise with a little knotted stick. If there's one meat that can't really go on a stick, it's caviar, and the tasty black bowfin caviar, a type I'm a big fan of, basically settled sadly to the bottom of the little cup.

The next wee bite was much more exciting, but they disappeared like hotcakes. Served on generous shining silver tablespoons, half-inch by half-inch cubes of tender pork belly sat in a green tomato glaze with pickled jalapenos. As I've found in my experience in New Orleans, pickling doesn't often denote "sour" here, but rather, things that are pickled tend to be sweet, crispy, and back a teeny, tiny punch of heat from teeny, tiny fists of pepper pieces when you least expect it. So the sweet jalapenos (seedless, of course)--cut into little diced squares but maintaining a cool freshness--were a perfect complement to the also slightly sweet but decadently golden green tomato glaze that held just a hint of smoked molasses ... or something else delicious and syrupy. Or perhaps the whiff of smoke was from the pork belly itself? Either way, pork belly wasn't what I'd expected, actually. I thought it was going to be a fatty kind of
tender, but rather, it fell apart in my mouth much the way pork shoulder would, and stuck in my teeth much the way pulled pork would. Tender like a shoulder but flavorful (although in a less lean way) like a cheek, I can see what the fuss about pork belly is about.

Obviously, I wasn't the only one that was drawn to these luxurious bites of opulent sweet flavor and they were gone just as quickly as the blue crab beignets disappeared. Magically delicious indeed! By the time my camera was pointed in the right
direction, the server's hands were empty. I wasn't surprised.

The last of the hand-passed hors d'ouevres was perhaps one of
the most beautifully presented ones: the duck rillette. Served atop a buttery little crostini, a toasted circle cut from a skinny loaf of French bread, the rillette was a generous portion. A big, shaped dollop of what is essentially fat-cooked fine-chopped duck meat mixed with even more fat (which is added until a paste is formed) was plopped on the toasted bread with local Pontchatoula strawberry and rhubarb jam holding the two elements together. The strawberry and rhubarb jam was an utter delight, naturally sweet but not candylike, adding a sugary element that downplayed the heaviness of the rich bread and richer topping. The rillette was surprisingly not heavy-tasting (I was expecting a bacon-like richness and feel), giving off a duck flavor that could only be felt in the finish, if I may use a wine term. To elaborate, what I mean is that when you taste the perfectly room-temperature rillette, you aren't exactly overwhelmed with flavor, but rather, you chew and wait for it to come through the light, light taste and feel. However, swallow and take a deep breath. Taste that duck in the back of your throat by your nose? There it is.

Now, I'm really big on texture, and don't particularly care for things that squish, squelch, or any other word that demonstrates the same kind of onomatopoeia, so I can't really be a fair judge of pate, rillette, or the like, but I didn't dislike the duck or the lobster sausage, although the mouthfeel put me a bit out of my element. But I got over my aversion to oysters with the right oyster dish and I have no doubt that one day, I'll be able to appreciate offal and other things with squish for more than the technical skill involved in its preparation.

Anyway, I think that's enough babbling for today since I'm storing my energy for the even BIGGER post about the actual dinner. Keep your channel locked here, but for the next entry, I'd make sure I eat first, if I were you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On the Shit List: Restaurant El Chino Gets Their Hate On

Let me preface this entry with the fact that as a member of the apathetic generation, I rarely ever get riled up enough to try to enact change. Growing up in small-minded Long Island, I've developed a thick skin in terms of sensitivity to racial slurs and have the ability to laugh at them and at myself. In New Orleans, where people generally are friendly and accept one another (at least to your face, and I'm fine with that), it's easy to attribute racism to ignorance, since honestly, people seem more accepting of Asians here than in the Northeast, ironically.

In short, I'm pretty far from being a member of the PC Police; I'm a "live and let live" type of person, accepting the fact that there is evil in this world and not a whole lot that can be done about it. So it was to my own utter surprise when I found myself so grossly offended as to think about doing something about it, something even so small as calling in a complaint.

I was going through local entertainment mag Where Y'at Magazine the other night when I was struck by a sight in an ad so appalling that I laughed out loud -- it was picture of a red, round-faced little man with a triangular pointed hat. No biggie, right? Well, that's innocent enough until you look under the hat and you see little beady eyes so slanted that the degree of the angle was pretty close to 90. The only thing that makes it even worse is the stringy, mouse-whisker mustache that droops down into the 1940s chopsticks font. The name of the restaurant? El Chino -- roughly translated, "The Chinaman," a term coined in the age of the Gold Rush to denote the hordes of Chinese that traveled overseas to build the railroad system out west, a term usually spat out with disgust and plenty of saliva.

So, okay. Maybe this "authentic" Chinese restaurant was owned by a really, really self-hating Asian (or, Oriental if he hated himself that much, although I think that's getting too PC since it's an 0ld-school term with no negative connotation. I mean, I like rugs. Don't you? That's the only way I ever hear the word). However, I found out that the guy is not even Asian. In fact, I was informed that he was a Mexican immigrant who hit success with Daisy Duke's in the French Quarter and Mexican joint El Gato Negro, also in the Quarter. I could be okay with that; perhaps this dude was merely ignorant that it's no longer "hip" nor is it "with it" to go along to negative stereotypes that a minority has been working for generations to phase out. I thought I'd give the owner a call as a concerned citizen and let him know that this could potentially alienate quite a few diners.

Well, I didn't catch the owner-dude's name, but his defense consisted of these points after I very politely made my own points (please note, the parenthesis are between you and me and weren't spoken):
  • He has a Vietnamese girlfriend. (I don't think this should have counted as a defense. Does dating someone then give you license to disrespect their ethnicity?)
  • He is half-Chinese, so if his sign were making fun of the Chinese, he would be making fun of himself. (I believed this ... until someone who knows him told me that this is patently untrue.)
  • He polled Asians in the community, like his father ... (Shouldn't this be your first clue that something may not be politically correct, if you need to poll people about your branding?)
  • ... and they all were not offended. (I just don't see how this could be true ...)
  • He is just trying to get food on the table for his family. (Okay, that's fair. But again, not a defense, and not really that relevant. A non-racist sign would not detract from feeding his family, nor would it cut his clientele.)
  • I was being sensitive because 'why wasn't I calling places named Great Wall.' (Umm ... because it's a landmark, not a picture of slanty eyes and other stereotypical nastiness.)
  • He isn't here to make anyone happy ... (The food service industry may not be the right place for him, then, don'tcha think?)
  • ... and that is why he's kept the name of his other restaurant El Gato Negro, "The Black Cat," even though "negro" is in it. (This is totally different. "Negro" is legitimately the word for "black" in Spanish, which the name of the place obviously signifies.)
  • He insisted that he was actually fighting against anti-Asian sentiment by prominently displaying this branding since it was showing that he was not sensitive and was proud of his heritage. (This was really confusing to me. I actually still don't know what to say to that.)
I wrapped the conversation up, thanking him for taking the time to listen to my concerns. He made a vague promise to "look into it" (look into what?) and seemed primarily focused on knowing who I was, who I wrote for, and all that ... all of which I thought was irrelevant since I was calling representing myself and not any publication. But I guess as a restaurant owner with some shady shit under his belt, I could see him being concerned.

Shady shit? Why yes! I would say lying to me about his racial heritage to cover his ass was shady. This guy's reputation in the service industry isn't the greatest either, and I can't talk about other allegations that I've heard. I've heard the word "douchebag" bandied about and "scumbag" used, as well as other words that end in "bag." (Since when did being a bag of anything turn into such an insult? How curious.)

Anyway, my main point is that this shows moral ineptitude, and it is this kind of behavior and lack of community response that makes the hump of racism so difficult to overcome. I'm one of the last people that will ever support affirmative action since I believe in individuals, not generalizations, but I do think that in order to move forward, we need to not be so in tune with our differences. We are all part of the human race and struggle through the same things, no matter of language, creed, color, or religion. And for this owner to continue to display this patently offensive branding--worse because he is not a member of that racial group--is despicable. It'd essentially be the same if I, as an Asian woman, called a Mexican restaurant something derogatory in English with a picture of Speedy Gonzales or day laborers in a pickup; as if I were to open an establishment and have my logo be a picture of someone in blackface.

Granted, as Boy said, people do use comical imagery when it comes to ethnic food (see? I can see both sides of the coin), judging from the overuse of sombreros in Mexican restaurants and jolly men with mustaches in pizza places, but it's one thing to be jaunty and fun and a whole other thing to be cruel and unconscionably incorrect with regards to a whole other ethnicity ... of which you are not a part.

So do me a favor, intelligent readers of The Vicarious Food Whore -- if you don't mind, of course -- and let this guy know what you think. Stop by El Chino and let the staff know that you find his signage discriminating and hateful, funny only in its irony, and that you will not patronize his establishments (which all have low-quality, low-rent *dripping with sarcasm* "authentic" food anyway -- sorry, dude, you can't claim authenticity to three different types of cuisine -- that's just an insult all the way around to everyone) until he learns that it's just not cool to uphold a negative stereotype.

Bah -- a sour taste is in my mouth, and I haven't even eaten anything yet. What a shame.

P.S. Asian eyes don't even necessarily slant. It's actually more of an anomaly when they do. They just look more angular because everyone's doing the cat-eye tips on their eyeliner (guilty!) and our eyes aren't as deep-set as Caucasian eyes, making it more of a bone structure thing. Seriously. Take off the glasses of decades of conditioning and take a closer look.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guilty Pleasures: Supreme Pizzas at the Hut

I find this to be true: that whenever one places dietary restrictions on oneself, the craving for the things that are expressly verboten (it sounds harsher in German, doesn't it?) suddenly surfaces. When I don't make a conscious decision to behave and not eat poo, I'm fine and don't have any unnatural urges to eat poo, but as soon as I say, "I'm being good," that's when the Popeyes and Pizza Hut monster rears its ugly head.

Such was the case this week. I have been very, very bad, and I'm not going to lie about it. I ate an obscene amount of Popeyes' best spicy stuff a few days ago, and downed about half a large Pizza Hut Supreme Pizza. And you know what? It was delicious.

Now don't start calling me a bad New Yorker; I love my thin crust pizza, sweet marinara, oven-baked flavor, and stringy cheese. But in New Orleans, where pizza undeniably (for the most part) really kind of sucks, you develop a shamefaced affinity for franchised fare. After all, with chain restaurants, at least you expect a certain level of mediocrity, so your expectations can only be exceeded. Plus, it's consistent and therefore "safe" no matter what latitude or longitude you order it from.

That being said, I truly do have a love affair for Pizza Hut's pan pizzas. My affection for the greasy, doughy pies stem from a reading program called BookIt! that the company sponsors to encourage children to read. After you read a certain amount of books, you get a certificate for one free personal pan pizza, and when your parents are really gung ho about natural ingredients and fresh food, it's an especially special treat when you get to eat something bad for you, even if your mom will only let you get the cheese one (she doesn't trust processed meat, really, and I didn't have my first slice of any pepperoni pizza until high school).

My preference has since shifted, and I justify my 400+ calorie slices of Supreme Pan Pizza to the fact that it has all these vegetables! The scent of roasted veggies hits your nose first. Sweet, red onions, toasted and slightly charred or burnt at the edges; green bell peppers sliced thin and given the same treatment, with their trademark crisp "green" crunchy flavor; shriveled but still slightly moist snow white mushrooms; and of course, who can forget the hearty, tangy marinara, all crushed tomatoes and basil, oregano, and other herbs? I mean, hell, it's almost like a salad, if you really think about it!

(That's right; keep lying to yourself, you big ol' food whore.)

So fine, I can almost make it okay in my mind and call it a "healthy" meal if I weren't such a glutton and didn't love the periodic burst of meat in nearly every bite. Pizza Hut is pretty generous with their toppings, and slightly crisp pepperoni (I wonder if this is included in their new "everything natural" campaign ...) and browned pieces of non-encased Italian sausage bites offer a great little zing of spice in every mouthful. I just love when the outsides of things have a shell of crunch, and live for the pepperoni with the slightly burnt edges that melt and crumble in your mouth and the sausage bits that offer a bit of resistance like a mini-meatball.

One of the best things, though, is the crust. As a pan pizza, they spray down the pans with some kind of buttery substitute (I'm sure it's not actual butter since that stuff ain't cheap) that gives the crust a lovely rich crisp and a golden brown color at the bottom. Also nice is the thin sheen of grease that forms in the beautiful toasted hollow patches under each slice. Since the sides of the crust on the end are well lubricated with the butter-esque substance, even those are delicious to eat, crispy on two surfaces and richly flavored.

The only downside? Unless you emphasize a dozen times "well done," the crust is never fully cooked through in the center. It's mushy, soggy, and wet-doughy, if that can even be a description, totally ruining the point of each slice. Because of that, it feels kind of cold in the middle, is chewy in the way fresh Bubblicious is after the first few chomps, and outright unpleasant regardless of the tastiness of the toppings, which could also be to blame for the crust's condition. With that much going on atop the pizza and more dough-to-pan contact on the outer edges resulting in more cooking there, it's no wonder that Pizza Hut Supreme Pizzas are never perfectly cooked. Meanwhile, the downside to having the whole darned thing cooked longer is that the top of the exposed crust may get slightly burnt and lose that light "enriched white flour" flavor and some of that buttery taste. But like I said: certain levels of mediocrity. And at just $11 a pizza with the right coupons (which they're always running), you take that with a few grains of salt ... sprinkled on top with some garlic powder.

And why not?

For perfect reheating, and to finish cooking the crust:
  1. Preheat toaster oven to 325. The smaller space allows for faster cooking and proximity to the heat makes things brown very nicely. Also, it's more energy-efficient.
  2. Place pizza on aluminum foil, dull side up. This encourages cooking rather than toasting since the shiny side reflects heat.
  3. Bake for around 7 minutes for 2-3 slices, waiting until the pepperoni is sizzling and slightly indented and partially filled with oil until you take it out.